This is Canada, eh?

When we weren’t tearing up the town at night, and Stuart and I spent a lot of time just hanging out and catching up, and also trying to cram as many authentic Canadian experiences into one week as humanely possible. If you come from the other side of the world, you might be forgiven for conflating the culture of Canada and the way of life in the US into one big North American culture… actually, the Canadians might not forgive you for that. But Stuart seemed to have a mental list of a whole bunch of small cultural delights that I simply must not leave Canada before trying. A few of these involved food – something that I was more than okay with – and we were often nursing our hangovers with coffee and donuts from Tim Hortons, or tucking into a steaming plate of poutine, a dish native to Quebec. I must admit I felt a little repulsed when Stuart insisted you had to cover the fries and gravy with cheese curds, but in the end it was delicious and totally worth it. Food comas ensued.

Breakfast of champions - a box of donuts from Tim Hortons.

Breakfast of champions – a box of donuts from Tim Hortons.

The disgustingly delicious poutine.

The disgustingly delicious poutine. I got mine with added chicken.

***

From national dishes to the favourite sports of the people, Stuart also made sure I didn’t leave the country without attending an ice hockey match. “This is my early birthday present to you,” he told me as he booked tickets for him, myself and Sam, another Australian guy who was also staying in the first hostel we were staying at. My birthday was coming up in a couple of weeks, but I would be back in New York by then, so I let Stuart buy the tickets to what he considered a very important Canadian cultural experience.

It’s no secret that I’m not the biggest sports fan in the world – the closest I’d been to playing sport in a long time was learning how to rugby tackle with the Amsterdam Lowlanders. Australian football in any form does not interest me in the slightest, but when you’re in another country it’s a little easier to get excited about their sports because you can put it all down to experiencing their culture. And as I was about to find out, Canadians love their ice hockey. The two teams that were playing were the Ottawa Senators and the Montreal Canadians. The Canadians were the team that Stuart backed, so he was especially excited to be watching them play in their home city. We were pretty much in the nosebleed seats of the famous Bell Centre arena, since the tickets were booked relatively last minute, but it was actually a pretty good view of the entire rink. And even from that far away, you couldn’t help but get totally into it, because the entire crowd was consistently roaring with cheers and applause and just going crazy in general.

Our view of Canada's favourite sport - ice hockey.

Our view of Canada’s favourite sport – ice hockey.

Matches of ice hockey are notorious for having their fair share of pretty aggressive, even violent, altercations. Our match was no exception, though from our vantage point it wasn’t always exactly clear when a fight had broken out or when there was just a longer than usual struggle for the puck. I have to admit it was a little exhilarating, watching the players swarm each other while the crowd erupted with simultaneous boos and cheers. I’m not usually one to condone violence, but in the controlled environment of a sporting arena I supposed I could make an exception. As well as watching the fights, I got to experience all the other novelties that come with attending such sporting events, such as the giant screens that put certain dancing audience members on display during halftime, or highlight an obvious couple in the hopes they’ll do an awkward kiss for the camera. And of course, we splurged a little on all of the over priced food – hot dogs, chips and pizza – as well as the huge cups of beer. In the end the Canadians were the winning team, so we all went home happy that evening.

***

There was one other famous building in Montreal that Stuart and I were yet to see, but it was located a little way off from the centre of the city, where the rest of the sights were. As it happened, Stuart had arranged to meet Paul, a cousin of his who was living in Montreal. They had some family-related things to see and do, but it involved driving around the city in Paul’s car, so I was more than happy to just tag along and be chauffeured around a little bit and showed some of the other sights of Montreal. The first stop was Saint Joseph’s Oratory, a Roman Catholic minor basilica and the largest church in Canada.

Saint Joseph's Oratory.

Saint Joseph’s Oratory.

I was probably a bit too close to get a good picture that does justice to the size of the church, but it was more of a drive-by visit and a quick photo op as Paul talked about the church and the history of the area of Montreal we were in. From there we drove up Mont Royal for a chance to view the entire city from the upper reaches of the hill. From there you could see all of central Montreal, the Saint Lawrence River and beyond.

View of Montreal from Mont Royal.

View of Montreal from Mont Royal.

Afterwards we went back around the mountain to visit Notre-Dame-des-Neiges Cemetery, one of the huge sprawling cemeteries that covered a large portion of Mont Royal. Stuart and Paul’s grandmother was buried there, and Paul wanted to show the memorial to Stuart. There was, however, a slight problem, which was the sheer size of the cemetery. Paul had written directions for how to find their grandmothers grave, but the twists and turns and plot numbers and street names were all a bit of a jumbled mess. We even stopped at a visitor centre to see if there was some kind of directory or catalogue, but it seemed like everyone had gone home for the day, because were wasn’t a soul in sight. We drove around for a while, but eventually we gave up. I guess it might have seemed like a wasted effort, but after some of the long days and big nights Stuart and I had been having, it was actually nice to just relax in the back of the car, and watch the haunting yet serene landscape slowly pass me by. After giving up on the search we went back to Paul’s house, where we had dinner with him and his wife – which is always appreciated by penny-pinching travellers – and where Paul also introduced me to Canadian rye whiskey. I have quite the taste for dark liquors, so I enjoyed it straight over ice. Strong but refreshing, it was the prefect way to end the weekend.

Hundreds of thousands of graves, yet never the one that we were looking.

Hundreds of thousands of graves, yet never the one for which we were looking.

At least the failed search for the burial plot was a relaxing afternoon drive.

At least the failed search for the burial plot was a relaxing afternoon drive.

***

During the week we also did other things, some rather touristic, and some surprisingly local. We visited the Musée D’Art Contemporain De Montréal, or Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art. We spent a good long while wandering through all the different rooms full of sculptures and colours and abstract art, although we weren’t allowed to take any photographs in the exhibition. We also did a little bit of shopping, and on Thursday evening Stuart even told me that he was going to meet with the local gay swim team. He’d been on the gay water polo team back in Sydney, and I guess he just had a knack for discovering and meeting up with these random gay sports teams no matter where we were in the world.

“You’re supposed to pay if you’re not a member, but I came there the other day before you got to Montreal”, Stuart said to me as we walked into the college building where the swimming team was meeting. “Just say you’re part of the gay team in Sydney and you’ll be fine.” I used to be a pretty strong competitive swimmer back in my teenage years, but since I’d been travelling I hadn’t really done much exercise, so I had agreed to come along. I dove – pardon the pun – straight into it, and it felt like I’d never stopped the rigorous swimming training of my adolescence. But while I remembered all the technique, my stamina and endurance weren’t what they used to be, and before the end of the session I had well and truly worked myself into an exhausted heap. I managed to pull through to the end, but when Stuart told me that he was going to stick around and play a game with the water polo team, I told him that he was on his own. Maybe if I hadn’t worn myself out with all the swimming first, but I was well and truly ready to go home. I did, however, have to answer the questions of a lot of curious members of the swim team, asking who I was and why I was here, with many of them just assuming that I had relocated here rather than just visiting for a week – I guess joining the local gay swim team isn’t exactly an ordinary tourist activity.

It was well worth it in the end, though – through the swim team I did meet a guy named Geoffrey. With his rugged beard, round spectacles and perfect smile, he was the most adorable little librarian I had ever met – extra points because that also meant he was pretty smart. I ended up meeting up with him later that evening, and we had a short but sweet romance during my week in Montreal. Maybe I didn’t see all the touristic options that Montreal had to offer – and did a few weird and completely random things with my time instead – but the unique and cute little memories like that will always make it 100% worth it.

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Amsterdamned: Pride in the Canals

The official Amsterdam Pride parade was during the day on Saturday, but the celebrations kicked off the night before. Joris and I got cleaned up after the rugby workshop and then got back on our bikes and headed out to the city centre. We had a quick bite to eat along the way before arriving at what was called the Homomonument – a memorial in the centre of Amsterdam that commemorates the all the men and women who have been subject to persecution because of their homosexuality. The monument consists of three large pink triangles – the symbol Nazi’s gave to their homosexual prisoners – and are laid out in a way so that each triangle is the corner of an even bigger triangle that makes up the main plaza of the memorial. However, that evening it was as far from a solemn memorial – instead, had been utilised as a space of celebration. There was a stage set up nearby, with DJ’s filling the night with electric tunes and heavy beats, and there were party goers and revellers everywhere. I had been to enough European pride festivals by now to know what to expect, and I wasn’t disappointed. The street had been overrun by a party, with drinks being sold from vendors stationed nearby and people dancing away under the open air.

The crowds of party goes at the Homomonument.

The crowds of party goes at the Homomonument.

One of the pink triangles was an elevated platform, so I climbed up onto that with Joris and looked out over the crowds. We were waiting to meet André and his friend, as well as some more of Joris’ friends who were coming out tonight. We weren’t staying at the Homomonument though, and when everyone finally arrived it was back on the bikes and off to Reguliersdwarsstraat, one of the main gay strips in the city. We secured our bikes before descending into the crowds on foot, and in what I had now gathered was the typical fashion of pride in most European cities, most of the bars had overflowed into the streets and the whole thing had just become one huge outdoor party. To be honest, I’m not 100% sure of all the bars that we went into or what any of them were called – I just followed the group of Dutch men I was with and tried my best to keep up with them and their drinking, although I always remained fairly conscious of the fact that I did have to ride my bike home. We were briefly inside a place called Taboo, but we ended up getting our beers in plastic cups and returning to the street, since the insides of most places were just too cramped. Then we crossed the street to a bar named SoHo, where the style and design was obviously influenced by a typical English pubs. It was a huge three storey building, and I lost and found our party several times throughout our time there, as well as sneaking into the bathroom without paying the fee that seemed to be in force that evening.

The pub crawl down Reguliersdwarsstraat continued, and I chatted to a whole different bunch of guys, some of them Joris’ friends, or friends of those friends. Towards the end of the road, we were standing around outside finishing our beers when Joris asked André and I if there was anything else we wanted to see, or anywhere else we wanted to go that night. We weren’t planning on having a big night, since we did have the parade in the morning, but the night was still fairly young.
“I don’t know…” I replied, trying to think if there had been anything specific any of my friends had suggested that I see. “Is there anything else around that you think we should see? Something quintessentially Amsterdam?”
Looking back I can’t remember if it had been Joris’ idea, or whether André had asked him to show us, but the three of us parted with the rest of the group and got back on our bikes and rode a short way to another gay street that was… well, it was definitely a different vibe. Warmoesstraat is adjacent to Amsterdam’s famous Red Light District, and is well-known as the home of the leather fetish scene in the city. Long after my stint of working in a fetish store, I still found such things quite fascinating, so it’s no surprise we found ourselves in a bar called Dirty Dicks, one of the many cruise bars in the area.

It reminded me of some of the smaller bars I visited in Germany, with a main bar upstairs and then the dark rooms downstairs. Except this place somehow felt cleaner – I have no idea how I can use ‘clean’ to describe any of these places but just roll with it – than Tom’s in Berlin, and the dark rooms weren’t even really all that dark. André and I ventured down to have a look, and under the blue fluorescence you really didn’t need to have much of an imagination. Joris had a good chuckle at our expressions when we resurfaced into the main bar. Honestly, I couldn’t tell you why I was so shocked. I’d seen plenty of places that were equally as confronting – if not more – but I guess it was always still a bit of a slap in the face to round a corner and walk straight into such gratuitous orgies. Oh well, maybe one day I’ll finally get used to it… or maybe I won’t. I don’t know, but it was definitely all the sex and the sleaze that I had been expecting from Amsterdam. We had another beer at Dirty Dicks before calling it a night and heading back home. Tomorrow was going to be a long, gay day.

***

When I woke up the next morning the first thing I did was meet Thijs, Joris’ boyfriend, who had just arrived home that morning. After a hearty breakfast cooked up by Joris, the two of them took André and I on our newly acquired bikes to the supermarket on our way to the parade – it was BYO where we were going to be, so we stocked up on our booze. André, having lived in Copenhagen for quite some time, was very used to the intense bike culture, but I was still getting used to the whole thing, almost losing sight of the others a couple of times. But eventually we made it into the centre of the city, where the streets were becoming crowded and swelling with people. The unique thing about pride in Amsterdam is that they really embrace one of their city’s – and indeed most of the country’s – most defining features: the canals. The parade floats literally float down the canals, boats that are decked out with rainbows and glitter and leather and flags and music and everything. The streets around the parade route – it travels across through the city via several of the larger main canals and the river Amstel – were particularly busy, with people staking out and securing their position so they could ensure they had a good view. However, we were going one step better. Joris and Thijs had a friend, Frans, who had a boat – well, more like a detached, floating jetty – at the edge of one of the main canals, and so was hosting a small parade viewing party. We were literally down on the waters edge watching the boats glide past.

The canal awaiting the parade of boats.

The canal awaiting the parade of boats.

Joris and I during the parade.

Joris and I during the parade.

Myself, André's friend, and André.

Myself, André’s friend, and André.

After missing most of the parades in Paris and Madrid, it was fun to actually be present and see the parade, especially from such a great vantage point. It was also a beautiful day – the sun was shining bright and there was barely a cloud in the sky. “Let’s hope this great weather continues,” Joris had said earlier in the morning, peering out the window of his apartment. “It’s rained on the day of the parade for the last few years now.” But today there wasn’t even the slightest threat of rain, and we danced and drank and cheered for the floats in the gorgeous sunshine. Some of the float designs were actually really remarkable. Due to having to pass under numerous bridges on the parade route, many of the boats had to be under a certain height to pass through. However, rather than having a bunch of relatively flat floats, many of them incorporated designs that allowed for things to be lifted and lowered, so that they could shrink down to go under the bridges before emerging on the other side. I guess it was a normal thing for most of the locals, but I was considerably impressed.

Gay drag unicorn - because why not?

Gay drag unicorn – because why not?

I Am Amsterdam

I Am Amsterdam.

Mermaids and mermen.

Mermaids and mermen.

The cheeky Mr B float.

The cheeky Mr B float.

One of the floats that was able to elevate and descend to pass under the bridges.

One of the floats that was able to elevate and descend to pass under the bridges.

It wasn’t too long before we started getting quite intoxicated – the mix of being out in the sun and all the alcohol dehydrates you a little faster than normal, and eventually things started getting a little silly. I don’t know who did it first, but at some point during the afternoon someone jumped into the canal in a playful attempt at splashing one of the floats. Then someone else jumped in. Then someone from a float jumped in. I don’t know if it was peer pressure or the fact that it was actually getting pretty hot out, but the idea of a cool dip sounded mighty refreshing, so it wasn’t long before I had stripped down to my underwear and was jumping in after them. It became something of a playful water fight, pushing people in as soon as they just climbed out, and dragging other people in with them. It was a lot of fun, I must admit, though being drunk as I was it was also thoroughly exhausting. Towards the end of the parade, when the sun had begun to sink lower in the sky, I was sitting on the edge of the jetty next to Thijs.
“I can’t believe we just did that,” he said with a deep, exhausted sigh, referring to diving into the canals and the water fight we’d had with the floats. I just let out a chuckle.
“You can’t believe it? How come?”
“Well…” A slightly uneasy look spread across Thijs’ face. “It’s not… it’s not exactly the cleanest body of water.”
“Oh…” I didn’t like the sound of that.
“Yeah. I mean, they do usually clean it before big events like this, but… They’ve pulled a lot of bikes out of these canals over the years. And far, far too much rubbish. Who knows what else is in there.”
It wasn’t a comforting thought, but I guess at the time I was too full of adrenaline and alcohol to let myself be too bothered by it.

At first it started with spraying the floats with water guns...

At first it started with spraying the floats with water guns…

A photo of us jumping into the canal that made it onto a local news website.

A photo of us jumping into the canal that made it onto a local news website.

A possibly not so refreshing dip in the canals.

A possibly not so refreshing dip in the canals.

When the parade came to an end but the sun was still up, the partying moved to the streets. Someone from somewhere had some kind of speaker system – I had lost my attention to detail at this point, okay? – and a huge bunch of people were all just dancing and raving in the streets. Some of them were my newly made friends from earlier in the day on Frans’ boat, while others were people who I was only meeting for the first time. It was all a little crazy. There was a car that tried to drive through the street we were on. It proceeded to get rocked side to side to the beat of the music on its way through, but the driver didn’t even seem to mind that much. It was just a crazy and fun afternoon where it seemed like every single person in the city was getting into the spirit and celebrating. We stayed there until dusk started to roll around, at which point Joris came and found me to let me know they were heading home. We still had another party to attend later that evening, and after the day we’d had I definitely needed a power nap.

The van that gatecrashed our street party.

The van that gatecrashed our street party.

***

“We’ll just have a quick lie down, to recharge and get some more energy,” Joris had said. Famous last words, if ever I’d heard them. Fast forward, and Joris was knocking on the door of the spare room André and I were sharing. I had laid down on my air mattress for what I thought was going to be a few seconds, but Joris was taking us up more than a few hours later.
“Looks like we were all a little more tired than we thought,” he’d said as we stirred from our slumber. “It’s almost midnight.”
“What?!” We’d had plans to head to the party at 10 o’clock, but that obviously wasn’t happening any more.
“Yeah,” Joris said. “We’ve ordered a couple of pizzas that should be here any minute, so we’ll down them and get going.” No rest for the wicked, I suppose.

Ideally I would have liked to shower before heading out to a big pride party – especially after swimming in the Amsterdam canals – but due to our extended naps we just didn’t have the time. However, I had a feeling that it wouldn’t be too much of an issue at the party we were going to. When I had been e-mailing Joris prior to my arrival in Amsterdam, he’d told André and I that the Lowlanders could get discounted tickets to the Bear Necessity party that was being held over the pride weekend. It’s wasn’t exactly my scene (for anyone not familiar with homosexual jargon, Google “gay bears” at your own risk/discretion – and use Safe Search), but I’m always open to trying new things, and the ticket was a considerably good price, so I agreed to join Joris and Thijs at the party, and so did André. We ate our pizzas and were off on our way again.

I was completely expecting to be the odd one out at a bear party – full of larger, older and hairier men – and I wasn’t wrong. André and I were in the minority of the smooth and hairless, but other than that it wasn’t too different from your standard gay party. The music was a little more electronic and house and a little less pop for my liking, but then it reminded me more of the trance-like beats I’d heard at places like Berghain, and I actually found that that was something I was getting more and more into. Some of the men were dressed up in their best leather outfits, and it was actually kind of interesting to see the kind of stuff that I had sold for so long at my previous job actually being put to use. Despite the kinky outfits some of them donned, most of them were incredibly nice, and I had a great time dancing with Joris and Thijs and the rest of them. One of the highlights was meeting last years Mr Bear Germany – I had no idea who he was, but I figured it would be something cool to tell my former colleagues about, so I stopped and made sure I got a photo. André left relatively early, somewhere between two and three in the morning, but Joris and Thijs and I stayed until the party wrapped up some time after five.

Myself with Mr Bear Germany.

Myself with Mr Bear Germany.

As we stumbled outside, the sun was already on it’s way up. On top of being drunk, I was incredibly tired – at this stage, standing up was proving to be a challenge, let alone keeping my eyes open or riding my bike home. In the end Joris asked one of his friends who lived nearby if he could help us out. He hadn’t ridden a bike, so he took the handlebars of mine while I took the passenger seat – a flat wire grid on the back of the bike, to which one could strap a basket or some other cargo. I sat sidesaddle and wrapped my arms around their friends waist for support, and the four of us on the three bikes set out from the Red Light District and into the quieter streets of Amsterdam. It was so still and peaceful. I don’t remember my bike riders name, but I do remember leaning my head on his back, and just watching the dawn unfold around the beautiful city, so still and undisturbed. It was rather magical, the best antidote to the day and night of crazy partying, and the perfect end to Amsterdam pride.

A Little Luxury

One thing I’ve learnt about travelling is that, try as you might, there is no possible way to prepare for every single situation. You can spend weeks or months planning a trip, but odds are that life is going to throw you a curve ball and you’re going to have to deal with some unexpected and potentially unpleasant, or at the very least frustrating, situations. I experienced one particular drawback during my Air BnB stay in Barcelona, when I was told halfway through my third day staying in the apartment that there was a plumbing problem with the shower and they would set to work installing a new shower right away. Great for the people who live there – not so great for the people who are paying per night to stay there, with the expectation they would have access to basic facilities such as a bathroom. I’d already paid upfront with no chance for a refund which was a little frustrating, because if I had known I wasn’t going to have a place to shower for half my time staying there then I probably would have left to find a place where I could.

I don’t think that’s necessarily being ungrateful either – this wasn’t Couchsurfing: it wasn’t a free place to stay. I was technically a paying customer, and unfortunately I didn’t get what I thought I was paying for. I went so far as to meet up with someone on one of the various gay social networking phone applications so that I might be able to borrow their shower to get ready for my final night out at the clubs in Barcelona. He was another tourist, a British guy named Mike, and after my shower we hung out for the afternoon and actually got on pretty well. He was even considering coming out to Metro with me that evening, but he had to cancel after receiving an emergency phone call from home about someone trying to break into his apartment back in London. So once again I set out to the club by myself, and that was the night that I met Fausto, Holger and Malte.

***

The next day, after catching up on a bit of sleep, I got in contact with Fausto. He had invited me to come swimming with Holger, Malte and himself at their hotel pool, and considering the shower in my apartment wouldn’t be fixed any time soon, I figured a relocation wouldn’t be such a bad idea – even if it was just for an afternoon. I gathered my things, said my goodbyes to Rich, and then jumped on the metro over to the seaside hotel where Fausto and the German guys were staying. I dropped my things in their hotel room, changed into my swim shorts, and headed down to the pool.

I chatted with the three of them as we sat around the pool and soaked up the bright sunshine that was beating down out of the clear sky. Fausto, despite having a distinct American accent and speaking perfect English, was actually from Brazil. He’d lived and grown up in New York City before eventually moving back to Brazil, where he now resided. The three of them were part of a group of friends who lived internationally, taking trips around the world during certain events and special occasions to catch up with one another. Holger lived in Munich and Malte in Berlin, and the three of them had caught up in Spain after Fausto had been travelling in Greece wi some of his family. I told them about my travels while they told tales about some of their trips and some of their own crazy stories with this global group of friends. I think more than anything they were fascinated about the idea of my backpacking journey, but after seeing the place they were staying at, it wasn’t difficult to see why. There were hotel staff wandering around the pool area who were catering to each and every whim of all of the pool-goers in order to make their experiences as comfortable as possible. Ironically, I actually felt a little uncomfortable with the idea of people waiting on me so incessantly. It was a level of luxury I hadn’t really experienced in quite a long time, and I’d grown quite used to depending on nobody but myself for most things, especially in the last couple of months.

Eventually I slipped into the water, partly to avoid being asked “Is everything alright here?” another countless time, and partly because the Mediterranean sun shining down on us made the sparkling blue tiles that lined the pool irresistibly inviting. Afterwards, we had lunch in the restaurant at the hotel, and the guys also let me use the shower in their room to clean myself up and get ready for my next train. It was a Friday afternoon, and I was heading west to the Spanish capital of Madrid, in hopes of finding a more engaging party scene than I had in Barcelona. But I thanked the three men profusely before heading off to the train station. They had given me a glimpse into another world of travel from which I was currently so very far removed. After the nuisance that had been the broken shower in my Air BnB apartment, I definitely had to acknowledge the benefits that come with paying for your own place in an institution that specialises in services for travellers. Not that I would have experienced this level of luxury at a hostel – and there’s no way I would have been able to afford the kind of place Fausto, Holger and Malte were staying at on my budget. I’ve heard plenty of people tell me that they could never do what I was doing, and that they always had to stay in hotels when they were travelling. Though in most cases those holidays only last a few weeks, or a couple of months at best, since most people had regular jobs to go back to – which probably helped them in affording to stay in such places. The length of my trip on the budget I was working with didn’t exactly allow me to be too fussy when it came to accommodation, but I was okay with that. For now, I was more than content with my life hopping through hostels and couches as a thrifty backpacker.

Life’s a Beach

While Bangkok may be a glistening gem of a city, full of flashing lights, broken streets and chaotic, life-threatening traffic, the country of Thailand is home to a huge range of other travel destinations, particularly the beaches and islands that are scattered all around the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand. My time spent in this mega city had been incredibly eye-opening, but once again that travelling itch was gnawing in the back of my mind, and I felt like I’d been stationary for too long. I needed to keep moving – to keep travelling – and so I decided to make the most of my time left in Thailand by making my way south to explore some of the coastal delights that the country has to offer. After a quick search through locations and hostels, I set my destination as the small coastal town of Krabi.

***

Sticking to my commitment to travel as cheaply as possible – and to also get the most “experience” out of my journeys, I booked a ticket on the overnight train from Bangkok. It was a 12 hour journey from there to a town called Surat Thani, from where I would travel via bus for a few more hours before finally reaching Krabi. Including delays and waiting time, it took me about 17 hours before I finally set foot in the hostel – a long time considering Krabi has an airport which is a one hour flight from Bangkok, but it was also remarkably cheaper. Getting the train also felt like an adventure itself – the staff working on board came down the aisles and set up the beds, and an hour into the journey I was curled up in my own private bunk, watching the countryside pass by under the cover of night. It was actually kind of fun – I felt a little bit like a child again, hiding in a cubby house or a fort made out of pillows. I admit that it may not have been the best sleep of my life, but it was adequate, and the option had the advantage of covering both transport and accommodation for the night, killing two birds with one stone. The morning of my arrival in Surat Thani was a confusing wild goose chase, with buses and vans taking me from place to place until I finally arrived at the hostel in Krabi. It was a little unnerving when you weren’t 100% sure where you were going, but sometimes you really have no choice but to go along with it and pray whoever is taking you wherever just knows where they’re going.

I soon learnt that I should probably put a bit more effort into my research in the future, as I made a startling discovery upon arriving in Krabi – the town itself doesn’t actually have any beaches. I was a little put out – gone were my fantasies of strolling down to the beach, with nothing but a towel and my ukulele, and strumming little ditties among the backdrop of paradise. But I hadn’t come through 17 hours of transit to sit and feel sorry for myself. After showering and changing out of my soiled traveling clothes, I enquired with the hostel staff and learnt of a “local bus” that could take me straight to one of the nearby beaches. So away I went, in the back of what was essentially a ute with a roofed cage mounted in the tray. I rode for about 20 minutes before we turned onto a long strip of road that ran parallel to a long beach called Ao Nang. I alighted and made my way down to the sand.

It was early afternoon at this point, and I was faced with another problem that I hadn’t properly considered – low tide. The beaches in Thailand are particularly shallow, so when the tide goes out, it really goes out. I probably had to walk about half a kilometre before the water was even above my thighs. Since the water is so shallow, it also stays very warm. As I crouched down in the shallows to fully submerge my body, it felt more like I was taking a sandy, saltwater bath than a dip in the ocean. It was still quite pleasant, but not exactly the refreshing dip I had been expecting, or that I really needed in the sticky Thai humidity. Nevertheless, I was glad to be out of the city and washing away the rest of my worldly cares on a beach somewhere.

Ao Nang beach

Ao Nang beach

I had been told by a few travellers that he beaches down in this part of Thailand were some of the most beautiful in the world, with clear waters and pristine white sand. Yet as a made my trek through the waves breaking around my ankles and back go the shore to walk along the beach, I was quite shocked at what a found. All along the sand and in the wash along the shoreline, the beach was polluted with all kinds of litter. T-shirts wrapped in pieces of driftwood, lost shoes, beer bottles and other shards of broken glass, beer cans, plastic bags, water pistols and other toys – after closer inspection the sand along the beach resembled somewhat of a dumping ground. “Untouched” was a word I had heard used to describe these so-called pristine beaches. Maybe Ao Nag was an exception, or maybe that person hadn’t visited this area in a long time, but as the sun set on the otherwise beautiful seaside setting, I couldn’t help but feel slightly disappointed in what I’d found. I climbed aboard the local bus and headed back to the hostel, making a determined promise to myself to continue my search for the pristine beaches tomorrow.

***

My trip to Krabi also marked the first time that I would be staying in a hostel. I’d heard some horror stories about stolen possessions and other traveling nightmares, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. After showering and changing I ran into a couple of guys in my room and introduced myself. We sat around chatting for a while – Jens was a traveller from Sweden and Sam was from London – and we ended up going down to the local night markets for some cheap Thai food dinner. Back in hostel room, we got chatting to a Moroccan traveller, a girl named Sarah. The four of us, complete strangers until that evening, made an unlikely group of friends, yet we ended up chilling out on one of the hostels balconies, drinking and smoking and just talking about our lives. It was at that moment that I really felt like a traveller – just an individual in a collection of wanderers, making our way through the world, whose paths intertwined for that one night, for that brief moment in time.

The quiet streets of Krabi Town at night

The quiet streets of Krabi Town at night

The next day, after trading tips among the hostel dorm room, Sarah, Sam and myself decided to catch a boat to a beach called Rai Leh. A pair of Norwegian girls had promised us beautiful beaches there, and I figured we could trust the word of someone who had visited the area just days before. And we were not disappointed – as the boat cruised in to anchor just off the beach, even the towering sheer limestone cliffs that filled the scenery around us were breathtaking. Sam said it looked like something out of Jurassic Park, and as a fan of the movie I most definitely agreed. This place was simultaneously beautiful, soothing, and awe-inspiring – this is what tropical paradise was supposed to look like. Rai Leh was a strip of land that had two beaches, with the eastern side acting as more of a port for the various boats bringing people in, so we made our way over to the western side which had been a little more developed for the tourist population. There were lots of bars and resorts just beyond the edge of the sand, so we had a few drinks before making our way into the water.

On the boat pulling into East Rai Leh.

On the boat pulling into East Rai Leh.

I soon discovered that the shallow beach at Ao Nang wasn’t a one-off thing. The water at West Rai Leh was a similar depth to begin with, and I had to walk out a long way before the water even came up to my chest. But when it did, the water became much cooler, and it was lovely swimming around, diving under the waves, and then kicking back and marvelling at the sweeping scenery that surrounded the beach. While the water wasn’t as deep as I would have preferred in a beach – or probably more accurately, what I was used to – it was definitely the visuals of the location that made it so appealing. The sand and water was also a lot clearer than Ao Nang, so I was satisfied to have finally founded these fabled, pristine beaches.

On the stunning shores of West Rai Leh.

On the stunning shores of West Rai Leh.

I also learnt a few travelling tips from Sarah that day. As we boarded the boat to take us to Rai Leh, she had brought along her large rucksack, while Sam and I only had our smaller backpacks. “You must never book more than one night in a hostel,” she said to us in a thick French accent, when we asked her why she had checked out and brought all her gear with her. “You never know where you might end up, or where you might want to stay. Krabi Town has no beaches! I do not want to spend another night there.” She had been travelling around the Thai islands for months now, and she had definitely mastered the tricks of the trade. And she was right, of course. When we got to Rai Leh, she sniffed out some budget accommodation – a mattress on the floor of a bamboo hut on the east side – and checked in straight away. “The beaches… This is where I want to be.” Sam and I still had our beds booked back at the hostel, so when it came time to get the last boat back to Krabi, as the sun set behind the clouds and turned the sky a glowing pink, we bid Sarah goodbye and good luck in her new home for the night.

The sun turning the sky a beautiful shade of pink on the boat ride home.

The sun turning the sky a beautiful shade of pink on the boat ride home.

***

My original plan had been to leave the next day, but I felt like my time in the beaches had come to a premature end. So after sniffing around some of the tourist information centres in the street, I booked a full day SCUBA diving tour for the following day, and secured my room at the hostel for one more night. I hit the hay early that night, to rise for an 8am pick up, in a car that took me back Ao Nang beach. From there, a boat took the group – the dive instructor and a pair of stern looking European men who spoke very little, and when they did, it was rarely in English – about 40 minutes out into the sea. We geared up, and soon we were descending into the deep blue.

I had completed my Open Water SCUBA Diving course when I was only 12 years old, on a family holiday in the Maldives. I had been diving periodically since then, but it had been about 4 or 5 years since my last dive. So I was a little nervous, but as I flipped over the edge of the bloat and plunged below the surface, it all came flooding back to me – unfortunately, like the sea water into my mask. But other than that, it was like riding a bike – some things you just never forget.

The first dive reached a depth of about sixteen metres. The visibility wasn’t the greatest, which meant the distance you could see through the water was limited, but it wasn’t awful, and we were still able to see all the marine life that was just teeming in the water around us. Schools of fish that looked like walls in front of us parted as we swam in their direction, and our guide pointed out some other less obvious creatures, such as sea horses clinging to the coral, or small stingrays that would gently hover above the surface, and then take off once we got too close. It really was like another world down there on the ocean floor, and I realised just how much I loved and missed SCUBA diving, as I marvelled at the marine alien world. I made a promise to myself at that very moment that I would make more time for diving in my life, and later went on to scope potential diving destinations on the rest of my year long world tour.

After the first dive, we had a break in which I was able to do some snorkelling. This far out to sea, the water was clear and cool, and an absolute dream to swim through. The boat was anchored to a small limestone island jutting out from the sea, and as I swam around the perimeter I discovered a cuttlefish nestling in the safety of the rocks. The second dive was going to be in a cave – something I was a little nervous about, knowing some of the potential dangers. Armed with flashlights, we descending a second time, not just into the deep blue sea, but through the mouth of a cave below the limestone island, and into a black abyss. I experienced a strange sense of vertigo in the darkness of the cave. The ground can be rushing up to meet you one moment, and the next you’re bumping your head on the roof. It found it difficult to maintain a stable neutral buoyancy at the best of times, so trying to do so with no real idea of where I was proved a little stressful. I made a point of not losing sight of our guide though, not only because I knew he wouldn’t be lost, but also because he was pointing out some of the marine life with his torch. We saw a couple of nurse sharks, a few more stingrays and seahorses, plenty more fish, and a strange creature that looked like an octopus but had far too many legs, so I can only assume it was either a type of cave dwelling squid or jellyfish.

The island above the cave, and the surrounding blue water.

The island above the cave, and the surrounding blue water.

As I followed our guide in what appeared to be in upward direction, we moved through a small grotto before coming to a halt. When he shone his light at the walls around us, I saw about 5 or 6 lobsters at several points, all curiously climbing out of their hiding holes to get a better look at us. It was odd to see a lobster in the wild – the closest I’d ever really come was seeing them was in tanks at Chinese restaurants. We continued up through the grotto when, to my surprise, I broke the surface of the water. I pulled off my mask to look around to discover we’d found ourselves in a little pocket of air inside the cave, completely closed off from the outside world – the only way in was the way we’d come, through the sea. Sunlight was coming through from somewhere below, so the caves entrance wasn’t too far off, and the water lapped the edges of the rocks so that the cavern echoed around us. The light and the sounds and the serenity of the whole place made it strangely beautiful, despite being quite visually uninteresting. I’d been unable to bring my camera and so couldn’t photograph the cavern, but similar to the temple of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok, being unable to take a photo made the experience feel that much more special – a little personal memory that was mine to keep and treasure.

(NB: I did take a few photos with my underwater camera while I was snorkelling, but until I have access to a computer with an SD card reader I’ll be unable to upload them.)

After we made our way back to the boat and then back to the shore, clouds began rolling in over the ocean and eventually a downpour of rain was released upon Krabi Town. The driver who took me back to my hostel said it was a good thing, and that it hadn’t rained there in about a month. I spent the rest of the evening with Jens, Sam, and a couple of other British guys, who introduced me to some of the local beers, the most notable being Chang. I’m not usually a big beer drinker. Maybe it’s because it was just cheaper and easier, or maybe it was the peer pressure of hanging out with four straight guys – I guess we’ll never know – but the local beer was much easier for me to stomach than any of the brews I’d tried back home in Sydney. Chang was supposed to be particularly potent though – and the next morning, after about 5 or 6 drinks and a round of beer pong, I can vouch for that supposition.

Changover.

Changover.

Getting out of bed with one of my highest ranking hangovers ever – dubbed a “Changover” by the boys – and getting out of the hostel by 11am check out time was not an easy task. The rest of my day was spent navigating various modes of transport in an attempt to get back to Bangkok. It took just as long as it did to get there, although since the overnight trains were all booked out due to the upcoming Songkran holiday, I had to catch a bus for the 12 hour stint of the journey. Overland travel can be long and tedious like that, but I eventually made it home to Bangkok in one very tired and worn out piece.

***

My trip to Krabi marked an important step for me on my gap year world tour. It was the first time I’d really gone out on my own for more than just a day. Finding a place to stay that wasn’t a friends house, organising and booking transport merely hours before it actually leaves for the destination, and making friends with the fellow travellers around me were all things that I’d been very keen to do since I’d set out on my journey. I was only heading back to Bangkok to celebrate Songkran and gather my things before heading off to Vietnam, an entire country where I truly don’t know anyone. I’d had a blast in my short time at Krabi, so now I was more excited than ever to travel to more new places and really live the life of a world wanderer.